Hundreds of the travel industry’s most technology savvy executives will gather for our first Skift Tech Forum in Silicon Valley on June 12.

Skift Tech Forum, which will take place at the United Club at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, will focus on tech disruptions in retailing, distribution and merchandising of travel as well as on timely debates such privacy versus personalization. Expect insightful conversations from a broad range of speakers, including CEOs and top executives from United Airlines, Southwest, Uber, Accor, Sabre Corp., Hilton Hotels, Alibaba, and Kayak.

The following is part of a series of posts highlighting some of the speakers and touching on issues of concern in the technology space.

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Travel distribution seems to get more complex by the day, with new innovations and challengers entering the marketplace in a time of increasing change around the industry.

For Sabre, the last few years have been a period of change as well. CEO Sean Menke, who took the reins at the distribution giant in late 2016, has proceeded over a period of strategic workforce cuts and a wider focus on products outside its core global distribution system offerings.

As the company strives to make up ground on rival Amadeus, new air distribution innovations have become a priority along with refined hospitality products and new ways to interact with travelers themselves.

We asked Menke about his strategy and the evolving distribution landscape in the leadup to his appearance at the upcoming Skift Tech Forum on June 12 in Silicon Valley.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Skift: Sabre, historically, has been a travel distribution company. How is the company looking to evolve as the travel sector becomes more complicated and competitive?

Sean Menke: Travel distribution is certainly a large part of our business and maybe it gets the most attention, but Sabre’s central position in the industry gives us the platform to create greater connectivity across the travel ecosystem. We are on a mission to reimagine the business of travel, which is all about retailing, distribution and fulfillment. How do we fulfill the end traveler’s wants and needs through increased personalization and loyalty? How are our customers pushing automation and efficiency, how are they providing the right product to the right traveler at the right time?

One of the main drivers of this is data. Travel generates an enormous amount of data across all touchpoints, and historically the industry has not leveraged this data to the extent that it should. We are making focused investments in artificial intelligence and machine learning to harness data and create actionable insights that drive revenue for our customers. This also makes us uniquely positioned to create the technology that will deliver solutions that optimize distribution across all channels and enable fulfillment.

Skift: Sabre has been in the middle of a continued push into hotel services, among other areas. How important is it to provide a variety of different technology offerings across the sector?

Menke: When it comes to hotels, there are two customer segments that are most important to us. The first is what we call mid-market independents, which are chains that typically have anywhere from five to maybe a couple hundred properties in their system. A decade ago, these are the companies that realized they couldn’t keep up with the pace and cost of innovation, so we stepped in as a partner to drive technology solutions. Historically, this segment has been the core of our growth.

The other large segment is the enterprise space, which are the large global chains that you know well and probably frequent on your own travels. Historically the enterprise chains focused on developing their own technology, but especially now in an era of continued consolidation, we’re having conversations with every one of the large chains around their technology roadmaps and how we might partner with them to develop future technology. We saw something similar with the airlines roughly 15 years ago.

For both of those segments, I need to reiterate the importance of data and analytics – each of our solutions is more powerful when it’s driven by insights that come from data. If you were to visit a hotel’s website, log in with your loyalty number and book a room directly, they’d have a pretty good idea of your preferences as a traveler. But if you look at the other bookings that come through channels like the GDS or online travel agencies, ultimately the hotels know very little about you. That makes it very hard for hotels to create a customized offer and a guest experience that’s tailored to drive meaningful value for you personally. That’s why we believe the data that sits in our systems is a kind of fuel that powers the engine of next-generation retailing, including on the hospitality side of our business.

Skift: How do you look at the emergence of new distribution capability (NDC) in the airline space along with the challenges, and opportunities, it presents for Sabre’s business and airline retailing at large.

Menke: This is a very interesting and exciting time because we’re at a point now where airlines are looking at Sabre to be the innovator and to bring these capabilities to market. NDC is a key enabling technology across airline distribution, but it’s our responsibility to define the future of intelligent airline retailing in both direct and indirect channels. So later this year, we plan to launch new service-enabled APIs and enhanced capabilities in the Sabre Red Workspace that will allow customers to shop and book NDC content alongside traditional content. We are already working closely with customers including Flight Centre, one of the world’s largest travel agency groups, and we expect to begin a pilot program with additional agency and airline customers in the third quarter this year.

You may have also seen our announcement that, in the fourth quarter this year, Sabre will bring to market the industry’s first Digital Airline Commercial Platform, which is a major advancement in the capabilities airlines will have to use data to dynamically and intelligently market their services, fulfill across all channels, and deliver a personalized customer experience. And then we have NDC-enabled offer and order management on the horizon in 2019, giving our airline customers a competitive edge to truly differentiate their offerings. Ultimately, the NDC standards represent a great starting point for the industry, but the real promise lies in our ability to innovate beyond NDC to the ultimate benefit of travelers as we model a new and differentiated travel experience.

Skift: As you look forward, how will emerging technologies (payments, blockchain, etc.) play into Sabre’s continued evolution?

Menke: I touched on aritificial intelligence and machine learning earlier, which suggest a huge range of opportunities for those serving the travel space to completely rethink when and what to sell, how to staff and operate their businesses, and how to anticipate and exceed their own customers’ needs. In fact, we are currently running a chatbot pilot with a travel agency, leveraging the Microsoft Bot Framework. It has been deployed to the agency’s corporate travelers via Facebook Messenger to address common service and support requests related to existing flight reservations, and it’s a great use case to track how travelers learn about and interact with the bot – while simultaneously helping our travel agency customers ensure agents can focus on supporting more complex traveler requests.

Skift: Nearly a year and a half into your tenure, what strategies have been most important in your effort to get Sabre back on the right path? As you look ahead, which emerging trends will be most important for Sabre to capitalize on? 

Menke: We had a number of challenges in my first year that have been well documented, but I think what you’ve seen from this management team is that we tackle these things head on. We don’t hide from them. Our responsibility as leaders is to put issues on the table, talk about them and work to resolve them. And that has been part of my leadership change, to get individuals on the team that will help tackle these challenges first and foremost from a technology lens. We are a technology-first organization because that’s what’s going to enable our business going forward. So yes, there’s more to be done, but we have already accomplished a lot and we are making more progress every day.

Photo Credit: Sabre CEO Sean Menke. The company has put more emphasis on its hospitality offerings and airline merchandizing capabilities. Sabre